One of the most iconic images in pro football lore reflects a battered and beaten Y.A. Tittle, fallen to his knees with blood trickling from his balding brow. Up to that point in September of 1964, Tittle was the most successful "old" quarterback in history, leading the Giants to three consecutive championship games in his late 30s.
Tittle never recovered from the helmet-to-sternum hit that slammed him to the turf that afternoon, a brutal blow that would be outlawed in today's NFL. The pain from those injuries, the Hall of Famer ultimately lamented, "made me one thing I never was. It made me gun-shy. For the first time in my life I didn't want to get hit, because I couldn't get up."
Stories such as Tittle's contributed to the long-held theory that star quarterbacks don't turn stale over time. History has told us that the fall is sudden and steep.
Examples from the past decade have only served to strengthen that notion. After setting a new bar for age-40 quarterbacks, Brett Favre's career succumbed to the beating he took at the hands of a Saints team that employed a bounty program. After rewriting the record books at age 37 and 38, Peyton Manning plummeted from great heights once the effects of four neck surgeries ravaged his arm strength.
But what if rule changes designed to protect passers have combined with modern training methods to turn back the hands of time? If quarterbacks are protected in the pocket like punters in mid-swing, shouldn't we expect to see more gradual declines as a result?
While Brees is playing better than ever in the last days of his 30s, the 41-year-old Brady is finally beginning to show signs that his body is human after all. For the greatest of all time, #gradualdecline has arrived.
Fear not, New England fans. It was at this time last year when a Patriots staffer whispered to ESPN's Seth Wickersham that Brady was starting to show signs of slippage, nervousness and fragility. To the surprise of no one who's followed football over the past two decades, Brady promptly rallied to produce one of the great displays of postseason passing in January and early February.
Can he pull off that second wind again? We'll address that question and others in our overview of the league's aging quarterbacks:
1) Drew Brees, 39 years old, New Orleans Saints
The Saints have an advantage on the rest of the league because they play with four downs rather than three. It's easy for Sean Payton to pull the trigger in high-leverage situations when he has a mismatch nightmare in Alvin Kamara, the game's most reliable positive outcome in Michael Thomas, a wild-card to keep defenses guessing in Taysom Hill and the best offensive line around. The key to the whole operation is Brees, a keyhole passer with Yoda's mastery of the quarterback's processing force and the Jedi's ability to escape Aaron Donald's clutches in tight spaces. Brees is on pace to shatter his own single-season record for completion percentage (76.9; the record is 72.0) while setting a new mark for passer rating (126.9; the record is 122.5). What separates him from the pack this season, however, is his uncanny penchant for spinning out of trouble to convert improbable third and fourth downs in tightly contested games against quality opponents.
2) Aaron Rodgers, 34, Green Bay Packers
The Packers' Week 11 meltdown was Rodgers' season in a nutshell: gorgeous throws in a stale scheme mixed with a maddening insistence on swinging for the fences when the situation calls for a single or double. I never thought I'd beg for a checkdown pass until I watched Rodgers' mind stubbornly tricking his body into believing he could escape pocket pressure at will while playing through the knee injury he suffered back in Week 1. It's going to take another R-E-L-A-X or run-the-table miracle for Rodgers to save Green Bay's season -- and Mike McCarthy's job. Perhaps it's time to see if football's most gifted quarterback can make more consistent magic with a different coach.
3) Matt Ryan, 33, Atlanta Falcons
Ryan's pocket movement and deep ball aren't quite on par with his MVP season, but he's otherwise living up to the ceiling he established two years ago. While the high-octane attacks of the Saints, Chiefs and Rams are rewriting the rules of offensive football, Ryan's offense sits atop the next tier. The Falcons rank fourth in Drive Success Rate, a discerning Football Outsiders metric that measures the percentage of possessions that end in a score.
4) Philip Rivers, 36, Los Angeles Chargers
One of the smartest quarterbacks in league history, Rivers has used his beautiful mind to stave off the effects of aging. He plays like he could hit a crossing route to Keenan Allen or a back-shoulder throw to Tyrell Williams in his sleep. Comfortable with play-caller Ken Whisenhunt, Rivers has been in a season-long groove, supremely confident and fully in command at the line of scrimmage. Bolstered by the playmaking backfield duo of Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler, the Bolts rank sixth in both yards and points per drive this year.
5) Ben Roethlisberger, 36, Pittsburgh Steelers
One week after we saw Roethlisberger at his best in a blowout victory over the Panthers, we witnessed him at his worst for three quarters in Jacksonville. That's been the story of a season in which he's mixed errant throws with jaw-dropping reminders that he's a Hall of Fame talent leading a dangerous offense that has improved throughout the season. Slimmed down and moving better than he has in several years, Roethlisberger is showing signs that he's finally over the elbow injury that altered his throwing angle in October.
6) Tom Brady, 41, New England Patriots
After topping the charts in touchdowns, TD:INT ratio and passer rating in a three-year span from 2015 to 2017, Brady ranks 15th, 12th and 17th in those categories, respectively, this season. Those are the numbers. What does the film show? My colleague Gregg Rosenthal's QB Index, which grades every throw by every passer, placed Brady at the top in each of the past two seasons. Through 11 weeks of the 2018 season, 10 QBs rank higher than the reigning MVP. Brady deserves the utmost respect for obsessively training to reverse the effects of typical decline, improbably turning pocket movement from a weakness to a strength as he approached the age-40 barrier.
For the first time since his mid-30s, though, his ability to throw from a muddy pocket is regressing. Self-preservation is a powerful instinct, ultimately toppling fearsome linebackers as well as pretty-boy passers. Brady has been flinching to protect himself, turning his back and shoulders to oncoming pass rushers and letting balls sail off-target. He struggles to throw with authority and consistency outside the numbers and downfield, too often seeing his passes nosedive at the catch point. For compensation purposes, the Patriots' offense is more reliant than ever upon smoke and mirrors. To be clear, none of this is brand new. It's just that the ratio of poor plays to positive plays is gradually increasing. In fact, one source has Brady with the highest rate of off-target throws this season.
One of the fiercest competitors ever to play the position, Brady has made a career out of slaying dragons. This isn't a 2015 Peyton Manning situation, where the quarterback is an albatross in danger of losing his job to keep the Super Bowl contender afloat. If Rob Gronkowski and Sony Michel stay healthy and the offensive line keeps the pressure at bay, nobody should be surprised if the legend who has spent an entire career bending the two-minute drill to his indomitable will finds himself back where he belongs -- in the AFC title game.
7) Joe Flacco, 33, Baltimore Ravens
When he played well in September and early October, nobody noticed. When the offense stagnated thereafter, the known mediocrity at quarterback took the brunt of the blame as fans and analysts began pining for the unknown potential of Lamar Jackson. The NFL season is an episodic reality show, with each week bringing a fresh storyline. If Jackson earns a second straight victory this week against the rickety Raiders, Flacco might find himself written out of the script for the stretch run.
8) Ryan Fitzpatrick, 35, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Three NFL quarterbacks have thrown 11 or more interceptions this season; two of them play for the Buccaneers. For better or worse, the master of the chuck-and-duck isn't afraid to throw caution to the wind. The randomness that ruled in his favor during a FitzMagical September run has since left him high-and-dry as defensive backs started winning their fair share of 50/50 jumpballs. Despite a career-high passer rating of 100.4 and a league-leading figure of 9.6 yards per attempt, Fitzpatrick will likely serve out the remainder of the season as Jameis Winston's backup.
9) Eli Manning, 37, New York Giants
The antithesis of Fitzpatrick, Manning's diminishing skill set has left him irreversibly gun-shy in a checkdown-centric offense that has been among the league's least efficient through two coaching staffs and several iterations of the offensive line over the past three years. The comeback victory over the wayward 49ers and a play-action-heavy game plan versus the Buccaneers' forgiving defense may have the relentless New York hype machine in the mood for a ticker-tape parade, but the Goldilocks quarterback still needs the perfect setting, supporting cast and down-and-out opponent to succeed.
10) Josh McCown, 39, New York Jets
McCown has made the most of his second NFL chance, defying expectations since his return from a high-school coaching sabbatical in 2011 and 2012. His lone pinch-hitting appearance this season, however, was one of the most dismal quarterback performances of the season, replete with scattershot throws, poor decisions and three-and-outs.